Interview Questions for Shannon Takaoka about her latest novel ‘Everything I Thought I Knew’
Hi Shannon, thank you so much for agreeing to speak to us (YALC) today.
It’s my pleasure!
Can you give our readers a little overview of your latest YA novel ‘Everything I Thought I Knew’?
Sure. The book tells the story of a 17-year-old girl named Chloe whose life is turned upside down by a heart transplant, and it causes her to question everything about who she is and who she wants to be. At the beginning of the novel,Chloe is in her final year of high school andlaser focused on what comes next: getting into college and planning her future. But then she collapses during cross country practice, and when we fast forward to six months after her transplant, everything is different. She’s doing okay physically, but finding it difficult to settle back into her usual routines and relationships. Instead, she’d rather party with her new friend Jane and do all the things she didn’t get to do when she was busy being an overachieving “good girl.”She’s also experiencing recurring nightmares and strange gaps in her memory, where she keeps getting flashes of places, events and even people she’s sure she must know but that she can’t quite remember. It’s unsettling, but she doesn’t tell her doctors or parents because she doesn’t want to deal with any more medical issues, especially when all she really wants to do hit the waves with Kai, who is teaching her to surf…
Can you tell us a little bit about your background? What made you want to write YA novels?
Ilive in the San Francisco Bay Area with my husband and kids, where I’ve worked as a business writer for a long time, mainly in the tech industry.But I’m a dreamy creative at heart, so I’ve always had the idea that I’d try to write a book “someday.” But “someday” makes it easy to put off, so I finally realized that if I didn’t commit to an idea and to seeing it through to completion, it was never going to happen! I like writing YA because the teen years are usually a time of so many changes and new experiences – growing up, finding your voice and independence,thinking about the kind of person you want to be in the world and maybe even experiencing your first love. There’s just a lot that’s interesting to write about, and a lot that I can channel from when I was a teen that remains universal. I want teen readers to feel like they are not alone if they feel overwhelmed, unsure or confused by it all.
Where did the inspiration for to include heart transplant in your story?
Organ transplants have always fascinated me. The fact that humans have figured out how to transplant a heart or a kidney or a lung, successfully, from one person to another is such an extraordinary achievement, and the history behind it all is so interesting.I also read and listen to a lot of science-related content. At one point – I can’t remember the original source – I came across a story about organ recipients feeling as if they’ve picked up new preferences or interests after their transplants that they feel are connected to their donor. Craving a specific food or being drawn to similar music, for example. Whether this is really possible or not, I thought it was an interesting idea to explore – especially through a character who is at a phase in their own life where they are still trying to figure out who they are. So that was the initial spark, but as I wrote, I began to introduce some more speculative or fantastical elements into the story, some of which were inspired by multi-verse theories that come out of quantum physics.
How much research did you have to do on this topic before you started writing?
I love research and especially love science-related non-fiction, so I read a number of books about heart research and the history of transplant surgery. These included When Death Becomes Life: Notes from a Transplant Surgeon by Joshua D. Mezrich and The Man Who Touched His Own Heart: True Tales of Science, Surgery, and Mystery by Rob Dunn. I read and listened to patient stories. I visited hospital websites and consumed all the patient information on “what to expect” before and after a transplant. That said, I didn’t want medical details to be the entire focus of the book. Aside from the opening chapter, most of the story takes place once my main character, Chloe, is on the path to recovery. Everything I Thought I Knewalso includes speculative elements that take it out of the realm of “realistic” fiction, so there were always going to be some things happening in the story that are not necessarily medically possible. Getting too deep in the research weeds can be a real source of procrastination and over-thinking for me if I’m not careful, so Itried to let the research seep into the story without overpowering it, if that makes sense.
Did you get help from any specialist Doctors/Specialists/Organisations to do with the heart transplants?
I felt like I got what I needed from the books I read on transplant stories and research, particularly the Mezrich book. And I also didn’t want to go so deep into the surgical specifics that my main character sounded like a cardiac surgeon instead of a 17-year-old. So, I focused most of my research on what I would do if I were the patient: read patient stories, learn about what to expect before/after surgery, etc. rather than coming at it from a doctor or specialist’s perspective.
Are you a surfer yourself? What made you give your main character, Chloe this hobby?
I am not a surfer, but because I live near the coast, I occasionally have the opportunity to check out surfers in action, and I love watching them! Surfing has always seemed so graceful and beautiful to me, but also a little intimidating – especially here in the San Francisco Bay Area, where much of the coastline is rugged and rocky. In certain spots, the waves can get scary big and powerful. I chose surfing for Chloe because it felt like a sport that would take her out of her comfort zone. The “before transplant” Chloe is a runner and a high achiever, but also somewhat risk adverse.So, I wanted her to take on an activity that was not only a little bit dangerous and unpredictable, but also one that she could engage in solely for the joy and exhilaration of it. It wouldn’t be about getting a “best time” or a line item for her college resume.
Additionally, I loved the idea of setting some of the action in the story in the ocean, because of the connection between waves and physics. (Yes, I am a nerd.)
What gave you the idea to base the novel post-heart transplant?
I decided to start Chloe’s story post-heart transplant because I was interested in exploring how a serious life/death issue, in this case a heart transplant, would change a person after they’d been through it. Would it alter their choices around what they value and how they go on to live the rest of their life? Would they feel a connection with their donor?
What do you want your readers to take away from ‘Everything I Thought I Knew’?
Well, first, I hope they just enjoy it as a story. When I was writing it, one of the ideas I was trying to explore was the question a lot of people – and especially teens – ask themselves: “Who am I, really?” And I think that it’s okay to not always be sure. You don’t have to have everything figured out at age 17. And the answer can change over time. We are always learning and hopefully evolving, and being shaped by our experiences.
I also wanted to look at what it really means to live. While there’s nothing wrong with having goals and plans, I think we can also get so wrapped up in what comes next that we lose sight of the fact that life is lived in the present. In Chloe’s case, she’s faced with this question in a pretty extreme way. She almost dies and then her new life is a constant reminder of not just her “second chance,” but also of someone else’s loss. So how does she choose to live her life after coming so close to losing it, and with the knowledge that her existence will always be connected in this unique way to another?
Finally, I think there was something I was trying to get at related to the tension between attempting to control everything and accepting the reality of fate and chance. No matter how much we plan, things will sometimes go wrong. No matter how much we learn and discover about life and death, there will always be things we don’t understand. For a scientific mind like Chloe’s, this can be frustrating, but I also think there’s something beautiful in recognizing that the universe is too vast, magical and mysterious to be fully explained.
What advice would you give someone wanting to write their own YA novel?
My main advice is that all advice is subjective – so if you are writing a novel, take what resonates and disregard the rest. There’s no “right” way to write a book. For me, the hardest part is finishing the first draft. Before Everything I Thought I Knew, I had a few ideas that I started to work on that fizzled out, and I realized that if I was ever going to get a book published, I first had to commit to finishing one. So, I just tried to turn off the self-doubt as much as I could and I kept going. Your first draft may be crappy, but a crappy draft is better than no draft. That’s what revision is for. Persistence is a big part of it. My other advice: READ. Read a ton. Read in the genre you want to get published in and read outside of it. Read fiction. Read non-fiction. Read novels. Read short stories. Read poetry. Read great journalism. For me, reading is the best teacher – better than any book on craft or class I’ve taken (although those things can certainly be helpful too.) I’m always analyzing my favorite stories and trying to understand what makes them work.
Finally, can you give us your favourite quote from a novel (it can be yours haha)?
Haaa… you are asking a very indecisive person to pick just one favorite quote? Torture! Okay. I’m going to with a quote from The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman:
“If you dare nothing,then when the day is over,nothing is all you will have gained.”
Love this book so much.